I vividly remember packing for my move to Panama. My new role as Client Representative for Isla Palenque brought on a mixture of excitement and nervousness about uprooting my Midwestern life and beginning a new one in a different country.
As I started stuffing suitcases, my head began to spin as I realized I was escaping from the dreary winter of Chicago to the sun-drenched summer of Panama. No more commuting through blizzards! Adios, mittens! Sayonara, bulky snow boots! Nothing could have thrilled me more than the prospect of infinite sunshine in a place where the only ice to be found is blended into colorful fruity beverages.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t quite sure what sort of clothes I might need in Panama. My first impulse was to fill my bags with flip flops and bathing suits, and I was sure that in a country bounded by endless beaches, business attire was all but illegal. Thankfully, my better judgment kicked in and I added a few more office-appropriate options, because as it turns out I would need both styles to get by.
Fashion is truly a cultural construct, often reflecting far more than the temperature and weather of a location. Panama is a crossroads for international commerce, a business capital, a centuries-old home for indigenous peoples, and a haven for vacationers and expats from around the globe – and Panamanian fashion communicates all of this. Casual style is very popular in the low-key beachfront towns, but Panama’s commercial cities require a polished, well-groomed appearance, especially when attending business meetings and entering office settings. “Casual Fridays” have not yet caught on here, and those working in government and banking jobs wear heavy, neutral-colored suits every day of the week. Nothing says dedication to dress code like walking to work in 85-degree heat, covered in wool from head to toe.
But once the workweek comes to an end, a Friday night out on the town exposes a whole different side of Panamanian fashion. The styles range from high-end designer to thrift-store quirky, fashion plate glamour to cabana casual, and just plain skin-baring. There’s a fair amount of influence from US designers – Michael Kors has a stronghold on the market for high-end shoes and handbags here. Walk into an upscale Panama City restaurant or bar and you’ll see cosmopolitan chic on par with New York and Los Angeles – you might even get turned away if you’re not appropriately decked-out.
If you’re planning a night out in Panama City, make sure to bring “club attire” – for men, this means dress shoes and a collared shirt; for women, this means pretty much any type of dressy outfit (in my experience, the dress code enforcers are a bit more lenient with the ladies). I’ve witnessed troupes of breathtaking Panamanian models and beauty queens wearing little more than T-shirts accompanied by 6-inch heels. For some reason they had no difficulty getting into a posh hotspot that was turning down hordes of slightly less fabulous people.
In more rural areas, practicality trumps trendiness. Fashion revolves around function: Chiriqui cowboys wear thick steel-toed boots, jeans and breezy shirts. Women spend more time outdoors as well, consequently opting for lighter, airier clothes. But even Panama’s country bumpkins keep some formal duds in the back of the closet for holidays and special events. This past Easter, in Isla Palenque‘s neighboring town of Boca Chica, I was amazed to see Boca Chicans trade their typical attire for a gorgeous array of colorful, perfectly-pressed dresses and suits in honor of the festive occasion.
The traditional clothing of Panama’s indigenous cultures (such as the Embera and Ngobe Bugle) often makes the greatest impression on visiting travelers. Check out my post on chacara bags for a more in-depth look at authentic Panamanian styles that blend functionality, tradition, and vibrant color.
When you visit Panama, you’ll no doubt be surprised by the number of different fashions you see; even more interesting is how they’re somehow seamlessly interwoven into one big colorful tapestry. In a single glance, you’ll see families of indigenous people dressed in their traditional garb walking next to groups of Armani-clad banking professionals chatting on their Blackberries. To a new arrival, this sight can seem like an ironic culture clash, but after a few days you’ll realize that it perfectly symbolizes the harmonious mixture of cultures and traditions in Panama.